Dan Fogelman is not the kind of guy to dwell on his successes. The busy showrunner just doesn’t have the time.
As he prepares for the last 18-episode run of his NBC drama series “This Is Us,” which begins its sixth and final season on Jan. 4, Fogelman is also shepherding a new hit, Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” which is in the midst of production on Season 2.
“Only Murders” is in a delicate stage as it tries to build on the promise of Season 1. And the work of sticking the landing on “This Is Us” has been made more complicated by the intricacies and time jumps used to tell the multigenerational story of the Pearson family.
But during a lengthy interview with Variety in November, Fogelman allows himself a moment to indulge his thoughts on “This Is Us” and its legacy for network television at a time of massive transition.
“I have been finding myself feeling moments of nostalgia and being a little sentimental. This is something I’m going to miss doing very much, and it’s moved so quickly,” Fogelman says. “It feels a little like when you’re raising a child. You turn around and they’re 6 — and they were a newborn yesterday.”
Now, as Fogelman and his writing team lay down their pencils, and cast members move closer to their series-wrap scenes, fans know to keep their tissue boxes handy. Expect nothing less than an emotional roller coaster of joy, heartache, triumph and loss as the series finale looms.
“We’ve planned out the show for so long and where it was going, and now I’m actually executing those things,” says Fogelman, who has had an idea for some time about how “This Is Us” will end, even as the series’ journey has evolved and changed. “And that’s super strange, this kind of ambiguous thing we talked about for quite a lot of time to be put into motion.”
It’s also a bittersweet moment for NBC and broadcast TV in general. “This Is Us” was an out-of-the-box smash, the kind that doesn’t come along often, and definitely not these days at the networks. The drama and ABC’s also-retiring comedy “Black-ish” represent two of the last broadcast series to achieve any sort of major recognition at the Primetime Emmys and other awards shows — another reason this feels a bit like one of those “end of an era” moments for legacy media.
“When the show premiered and became what it became, everybody told us that,” says “This Is Us” star Mandy Moore. “Like: ‘This is the last monolith as network television. You guys are a part of something really special.’ Who knows if that’s really going to be the case. But it does feel like that in certain respects. I mean, our viewing habits have changed.”
Says star Chrissy Metz: “We were actually one of the shows that people would stand around when we were [still] at our watercoolers at the offices, talking to each other and wanting to watch it week to week instead of bingeing it.”
The entire television business has undergone a seismic shift since “This Is Us” debuted on NBC in 2016. When Fogelman first began pitching the series, streaming was in its infancy and fall TV launches came with major fanfare, and there was much higher awareness even for shows without major preexisting IP.
At the time, prestige TV was still emerging from its dark, antihero era. Family dramas without a gritty edge weren’t getting much traction in primetime anymore. “This Is Us” flew in the face of that, bringing relationship-driven series back to the forefront.
The sudden death of his mother, Joyce, to pancreatic cancer set Fogelman on a path to tell the story of a family’s life and loss, which led to the idea of exploring the complicated and tangled mess that is the Pearsons in “This Is Us.” Employing both flashbacks and flash-forwards, the show bounced from the 1980s-era story of Rebecca and Jack (Moore and Milo Ventimiglia) and the present-day chronicle of their now-adult children, Randall (Sterling K. Brown), Kate (Metz), and Kevin (Justin Hartley) — as well as Randall’s spouse, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), and Kate’s new love interest, Toby (Chris Sullivan).
“As I was reading it I was thinking with my studio hat on, ‘Nobody’s going to program this!’” says Lisa Katz, president of scripted programming at NBCU. When Fogelman first pitched “This Is Us,” she was an executive at 20th Century Fox TV, where she helped develop the series. “It was a time when people were just looking for very noisy shows and doing a lot of the darker material. But I think everyone responded to the material. It was undeniable, to be honest. And plus, you had this brilliant hook [of decades-spanning leaps in time] that created a completely new way of storytelling.”
Adds Metz: “We knew it was special at the table read, but I didn’t even know if it was going to get picked up. And when it was actually finally on the air, it wasn’t until somebody came up to me at the grocery store and started really expressing their deepest, darkest secrets with me that I was like, ‘Wait, this is more than a TV show.’”
Ultimately Moore became the show’s common thread — the only character to span all time frames, playing young Rebecca in the flashbacks with Ventimiglia, and the older version of the character, under heavy makeup, with Brown, Metz, Hartley and the rest.
“I worked with Dan on [2010’s] ‘Tangled’ and I didn’t know him super well, but I read [‘This Is Us’] and I just remember thinking, ‘I have to be a part of this,’” Moore recalls. “I didn’t even know until three weeks before we were going to start shooting, obviously this story is not being told in chronological order. And also, oh, by the way, you’re going to play this woman at present day, at 65, and you’re going to be acting [opposite your] adult children who are older than you in real life. I was so daunted by that idea. … It is a lot more time spent in the makeup chair and on set than most of the [others in the] ensemble. But having said that, I would never trade it for anything. It means that I get to work with everybody.”
Given the early buzz, Fogelman says he was cautiously optimistic as “This Is Us” launched, even though his heart had already been broken several times over with previous series he’d created — the offbeat ABC comedies “Galavant” (2015-16) and “The Neighbors” (2012-14) failed to go the distance. That fall, the showrunner had actually scored two at-bats, also landing the female Major League Baseball drama “Pitch” at Fox. “Pitch” lasted only 10 episodes, but “This Is Us” became a hit for NBC even before it launched — thanks to a well-timed trailer, which went viral on Facebook and YouTube right after the May upfronts.
“So much of my experience in television had been one of disappointment and rejection,” Fogelman says. “But I remember Jennifer Salke, who was running NBC at the time, texted me that something crazy was happening with the trailer that they’d released online of the show.”
Within two weeks, the trailer had been seen nearly 80 million times. “They said more people watched this than watched the ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ trailer,” Hartley recalls. “I don’t know if that was true or not [believe it or not, it was], but I knew we had something that people were going to watch. I don’t know if Dan ever saw that coming. I bet he didn’t.”
Indeed, Fogelman admits his surprise. “I remember it being like an overwhelming whirlwind,” he says. “It was the first time in my life I’d ever been invited to the fancy parties. It was my first time when we got nominations for things. I don’t think I’d worn a tuxedo since my prom. Everything was new, and everything was overwhelming.”
“This Is Us” was the new darling of the 2016-17 TV season, averaging a 4.8 rating among adults 18-49 and 15.3 million viewers — the top new show of the year. That first season it was nominated for best drama at the Golden Globes and Emmys, where it won for lead actor (Brown) and guest actor (Gerald McRaney). Needless to say, the industry took notice.
“I remember vividly sitting in my office at Freeform at the time watching the trailer, and crying,” says Karey Burke, who back then ran that young-skewing cabler but now oversees production of “This Is Us” as president of 20th Century Television. “Just being moved to tears, not just as a television viewer but as a television executive. The feeling that it gave me of optimism and humanity and hope and family was so powerful, and I was so thrilled that it was resonating the way that it was with audiences.”
Moore also credits the success of “This Is Us” to an audience that needed to watch something with a little more light and emotion, given how dark the real world was turning in 2016. The series “was the emotional catharsis that I think people needed,” she says. “The show premiered right before this incredibly contentious election. And things went a different way than everybody was expecting. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the midst of this very divisive time in the history of our country, people were still able to find a show like ours that was really about family and connection and seeing the ways that we’re alike and finding common ground.”
Moore adds that it’s “no small coincidence the show really found its footing in the midst of this very dicey time for the last four years, five years.”
And then there was that cast. Moore, Ventimiglia (“Gilmore Girls”) and Hartley (“Smallville”) were known commodities, but Brown was just coming off FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and was seeing his star rising, and Metz’s singing skills soon became well known. The stars came in at different salaries, but all earned a big raise after Season 2, agreeing to parity, and recently received healthy bonuses on the eve of the final season.
“Watching the world change for all of us, what this show has sort of brought into all of our lives collectively, it’s been so fun to see,” Moore says. “For Chrissy and Sterling and Justin and Sully [Sullivan]. It’s changed everyone’s lives and our opportunities and what we’re able to do in the world and how we see ourselves. I think that’s been so spectacular.”
The success of “This Is Us” inspired a new generation of family-centric dramas with unusual twists, some of which became hits on their own, such as ABC’s “A Million Little Things.” Fogelman notes that these kinds of shows aren’t new — “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood” come to recent mind. “Nobody was twirling their mustache thinking they’re going to make another ‘This Is Us.’ If they were thinking anything, it’s like, ‘Maybe the success of that show opens up an opportunity.’”
The height of “This Is Us” mania likely came on Super Bowl Sunday in 2018. More than 33 million viewers tuned in after the big game to see the show’s huge reveal: How Jack died of smoke inhalation, in the wake of an old slow cooker with faulty wiring sparking a fire in the Pearson home at the end of the previous episode.
And even though it’s been more than three years since that fateful “This Is Us” reveal, it’s the kind of pop culture snapshot that no one ever forgets — a “Who shot J.R.?” moment for the 21st century. Perhaps that’s also because of the outrage that followed — against Crock-Pot. (Three years later, Peloton recently faced a similar crisis in the wake of a stationary bike-related death on “And Just Like That …”)
“I remember being, ‘Oh God, have we done something terrible to slow cookers that I never had weighed or imagined? There’s going to need to be a degree of damage control,’” Fogelman recalls. “With all the good came all the insanity.”
At the time, Crock-Pot was not amused, and quickly went into PR damage-control mode (not unlike Peloton’s recent moves), issuing a statement touting the safety of its device. The company considered suing the show; instead, Ventimiglia starred in a hastily made apology ad that aired during the Super Bowl and declared that #CrockPotIsInnocent. Ultimately, slow cooker sales actually spiked, another sign of the show’s power.
Now, as Season 6 of “This Is Us” opens, the series’ “Big Three” characters — Randall, Kevin and Kate — are celebrating their 41st birthdays. But viewers know that the Season 5 finale teased at least one bombshell: That Kate and Toby will no longer be together in the future, as Kate remarries. (“They’ve got some really heavy lifting to do this year, those two,” Fogelman says of Metz and Sullivan.) Flash-forwards over the years have also braced fans for Rebecca’s deathbed, which gathers the family together sometime in the future.
“In many ways, the sixth season is stronger and better than the first one,” Hartley says. Adds Moore: “Get ready. Dan is just pulling no punches. We’re only halfway through [shooting], and it’s the hardest I think any of us have worked. It’s really beautiful and very sad.”
Fogelman gets asked about spinoffs or reboots multiple times a day, and confirms that, yes, those conversations have already happened with 20th, and no, there’s nothing to report. “Once you’ve seen the completion of Season 6, the stories of these characters are told,” he says. “So there is no real spinoff because you kind of know everything. Is there another play for the show? I guess you’d never say never, but I don’t see it. It’s personal to me, and I don’t see myself picking this thing back up.”
Another important aspect of the “This Is Us” story to Fogelman is the number of writers and producers who went on to new heights after working on the show.
“Nothing would make me happier than for people to go, 20 years from now, ‘Can you believe all these writers worked on “This Is Us,”’ because I think that’s going to be part of the legacy of the show,” he says. “And hopefully they’ll say, ‘There was this thing on TV once, and it was sad, but it was also about nice, flawed people who are trying to do the right thing. And despite that fact, it was able to get pretty popular for a moment of time.’ If that’s the creative legacy of the show, I would be satisfied.” •